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Ebola Virus: A Grim, African Reality -

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The Guinea outbreak has also raised one puzzling new question about Ebola: What is this particular species of virus, known technically as Zaire ebolavirus, doing way over in West Africa, so far from the Central African forests in which all its previous outbreaks have occurred? Viruses don’t travel, except in other living creatures. It seems to have hitched a lift, across Nigeria and Ghana and Ivory Coast and other intervening nations, within something or someone. Maybe it was carried by a bat.

Scientists have identified a total of five species of ebolavirus, four native to Africa and one to the Philippines. They are all zoonoses, meaning animal infections transmissible to humans. They reside quietly in some species of wildlife, this or that forest creature, from which they spill over occasionally to cause mayhem and death in people. Ebola virus can only pass from person to person by direct contact with bodily fluids, and therefore an outbreak is stoppable by simple isolation and “barrier nursing,” or the careful handling of patients and corpses, once enough medical gloves, gowns, goggles, rubber boots, body bags and knowledge have reached the scene.

Although the outbreak is eventually halted, the virus isn’t gone. It hides in the forest within some hospitable animal, its reservoir host. The identity of the reservoir host (or hosts) for Ebola virus is unknown, but three species of fruit bat are suspected. One of those species, the hammer-headed fruit bat, lives in forests from the Congo basin as far west as southeastern Guinea and is sizable enough to be attractive as human food.

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